Small OH Department Strives for Big Youth Impact

"They need to see and have a consistent observation that the police are good at really, really, young ages because your imprinting years are from 0 to 8. So, if they have all of these positive experiences with us, that is going to stay with them the rest of their lives,” Chief Tom Wetzel says.

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Richmond Heights Police Sgt. Todd Leisure teaches members of the Cop Scouts about the American flag, including how to fold one properly.Richmond Heights Police Sgt. Todd Leisure teaches members of the Cop Scouts about the American flag, including how to fold one properly.Photo: Richmond Heights Police Department

In one small northern Ohio town, police are striving to make a difference with kids in unique ways. The chief hopes the department’s outreach programs can not only make a difference in local youths’ lives, but also be emulated by other departments around the state or even nationally.

When Chief Tom Wetzel took the reins of the Richmond Heights Police Department three-and-a-half years ago it was somewhat like returning home. Wetzel assumed the top post in the department after serving 31 years with police in nearby Beachwood. But, prior to those three decades, Wetzel had once been a dispatcher in Richmond Heights.

The department is small and is only staffed by 23 full-time officers, five part-time officers, and three records personnel. Even with so few officers, the department continues to create low-cost programs to reach children.

The Cop Scouts program is one of the more unique youth programs at Richmond Heights. It was the brainchild of Sgt. Todd Leisure, a former United States Marine who has worked at embassies and was previously a scoutmaster when his son was in scouting. Although sharing a similar name component, Cop Scouts is different than regular scouting. It is open to both boys and girls, ages 8 to 14.

“He came up with this idea that we just kind of let him run with and he really put together a nice program. Basically, it’s a blend of Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and a Police Explorer program. It’s exciting and it’s catching on,” says Wetzel. “We did a survey, and even though the sampling was small, the results were outstanding. It was clear that it is making a difference. Plus, you could almost see it anecdotally just in the smiles on kids’ faces and the reactions of parents.”

Cop Scouts launched in 2020, holding its first meeting in August. But once the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the new youth group was tabled for a while. Now meetings have resumed, Wetzel has stepped in to lead the group, and community donors are showing support. One man in the city donated 17 toy drones for the scouts and other individuals in the community have provided cash stipends for the program.

For now, there are only six active children. But for Wetzel that is fine – it is a sound start as he builds the foundation to grow Cop Scouts as activities gain steam post pandemic. The program is designed around a monthly meeting, which rather than being formal is often blended with a group outing or activity. The key component really is parental involvement.

“It’s not a daycare, the parents just don’t drop the kids off and we watch them. We want the parents involved with the program so there’s got to be at least one parent, ideally, there to participate in what we do together,” Wetzel says. “Not only are we building relationships with the young people, but we are also meeting and getting to know their families, their parents.”

In one meeting, the Cop Scouts learned proper care and folding of the American flag as they were led by Leisure. In another, the children met with mounted park rangers, learned about the rangers and the horses, and then took a hike in the park. On the hike, the children learned about the various plants they were passing.

The meetings are not set-in-stone events marked on a calendar. Wetzel connects with all the parents through text as he works to plan the meetings and locations. If some parents have conflicts, Wetzel will coordinate with all the parents to see if there is an alternate time to meet.

For the children in Cop Scouts there are expectations and they sign a pledge as a commitment to abide by key tenets. Additional laminated copies of that pledge are present at each meeting for the kids to again cover what is expected of them.

“The goal is to read that on a regular basis, if not at every event,” explains Wetzel. “So much is designed on personal respect for others.”

The expectations to be a member of COP Scouts are:

  • Must always be respectful to yourself
  • Must always respect each other
  • Must always respect your parents
  • Must always respect your teachers
  • School work will always come first
  • Must keep your grades up
  • Must be willing to help one another – teamwork
  • Never laugh at another but always laugh with them
  • Never use offensive language
  • Always respect another’s cultural and/or religious beliefs
  • Always be with your “buddy.”

The Cop Scouts are encouraged to become involved in more than just the monthly meetings. They and their parents are always invited to the other community outreach events organized by the department. Some attended Hike with a Cop, which was open to the entire community. They have also been welcomed to attend Skate with a Cop and Roller Skate with a First Responder. Wetzel hopes the Cop Scouts program will influence these children and parents to get more involved with these additional activities in their community.

Although the participating Cop Scouts are young for the most part right now, Wetzel says they will age out after 14. He hopes when that happens some will become involved in an advisory or assisting role to help the other younger scouts through the program. Wetzel thinks one child, Jadon Huff, will likely be the first to pass the upper age boundary of the program and continue to help with the other scouts.

 “I’m hoping she will be the first one to take that role and be an assistant for us,” Wetzel says. “She wants to be a police officer when she gets older anyway.”

The child’s father, Dr. Donovon Huff, shared a letter with Wetzel detailing what Cop Scouts means to him as a parent. He first explained how Jadon at age 5 was drawn to playing with toy police cars rather than dolls.  Then, when she was 9, she asked for her birthday party be held at the main 911 center in Cleveland. The Cleveland chief complied, and made it happen. So, Cop Scouts was a natural fit for the little girl and the dad is appreciative.

“I have witnessed two of the best officers that run the Cop Scouts take the badge off and be human Supermans in these children’s eyes. To sit and watch them be father role models, to assist with teaching the basic fundamentals of sharing, being a team, a mission driven to collective efforts not caring about race, gender or financial stability. Just loving those children as their own was simply amazing,” wrote Donovon Huff.

Wetzel wants the Cop Scouts format to spread.

“We see a lot of potential for it, a lot of growth, and we don’t want it to stop at our borders. We really would love if it got picked up within our state or nationally,” he says.

Richmond Heights Police Sgt. Todd Leisure boils water for hot chocolate using pop can stoves he taught the scouts to make.Richmond Heights Police Sgt. Todd Leisure boils water for hot chocolate using pop can stoves he taught the scouts to make.Photo: Richmond Heights Police Department

Other Youth Programs

Wetzel sees the Richmond Heights Police Department youth outreach programs as templates other agencies can use to provide guidance, support, and motivation. In addition to Cop Scouts, the department offers several other youth programs that Wetzel touts as low-cost but requiring sweat equity from officers. He has garnered community support to help fund the programs as well.

The department’s Tip our Badge outreach program recognizes students for academic excellence. It is a collaborative effort with local schools. Every two weeks a teacher nominates a student and then the chief presents an award certificate to the child, plus the youngster receives a donated gift such as tickets or a gift card. The student is also featured on the police department’s Facebook page.

“People who would normally not go to a public police page are now interested due to a child being recognized by us,” Wetzel says.

Wetzel’s department also holds a Police School Art Competition. Teachers submit art from students and officers vote on their favorite entries.  The winning artwork is displayed throughout the police station and lobby for one year. Winning students also receive award recognition from the police department.

The RHPD Teen Ambassador program engages older, secondary-school students. This is a school-sanctioned club so students can list their club participation on college applications, says Wetzel. The club teaches students about public servants in all the city’s departments, city council members and their roles, and civic groups such as Kiwanis. One key advantage for the department is the students function as community ambassadors for police.

“They can go out in the community and speak on our behalf. What’s better than to have the young people talk about cops are good?” says Wetzel.

Reshaping Perceptions

“We’ve got to change our entire dynamic on a national level of what our officers do. We haven’t done a good enough job branding ourselves. We haven’t done a good enough job getting our message out. People ran with this totally wrong narrative that’s been going on. It’s terrible. It’s egregious because it’s so far from the truth and statistics and numbers don’t bear it out,” Wetzel says.

The Richmond Heights chief believes a department should be engaging with customers, the public, on a daily basis through social media. That is a simple first step that costs nothing to start the journey toward building better perceptions of police.

Another step to advancing a positive narrative about police is for those in leadership to listen to outreach ideas provided by officers. Their ideas might work.

The chief said all too often officers have good ideas for community outreach that get bogged down in what he calls an “administrative logjam” and never come to fruition. He welcomes officers to bring good ideas to his attention so the department can give them a shot and encourages other departments to likewise support ideas from officers.

“You’ve got to let go sometimes,” Wetzel says.  “A good leader recognizes and is willing to risk failure for success and you have to do that sometimes. Most of these things will probably work, some may not. There’s nothing worse than not capitalizing on these sharp men and women working for us.”

One officer at the Richmond Heights Police Department wanted to educate students about traffic stops. Wetzel said the officer taught older students about what is expected from officers during a traffic stop, what worries officers during a stop, what their constitutional limitations are, what rights the person stopped has, and more. The officer even showed kids how to file a complaint if they think they were not treated right. They chief says it showed a commitment to the teens and demonstrated the transparency of the department.

“With so much negativity in the last five to six years it really took a toll. To me, I hate to think we lost a generation of people that supported us, and I don’t believe that’s the case, but I think we’ve got to really start with the young now. They need to see and have a consistent observation that the police are good at really, really, young ages because your imprinting years are from 0 to 8. So, if they have all of these positive experiences with us, that is going to stay with them the rest of their lives,” Wetzel says. ““We don’t really have to beat up our budgets to do these types of things; , we’ve got people supporting us. That’s why I encourage other departments to kind of follow these models we set up because they are designed to be cost effective.”

Chief Tom Wetzel, right, is joined by then-Mayor David Roche, left, as winners in the police department’s art contest are recognized.Chief Tom Wetzel, right, is joined by then-Mayor David Roche, left, as winners in the police department’s art contest are recognized.Photo: Richmond Heights Police Department

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